Western opera’s opulent pageantry contradicts traditional Japanese understated aesthetics. In the novel “Butterfly’s Child,” Angela Davis-Gardner resolves this difference by crafting a subdued, multilayered marvel of delicacy as she imagines what happens to the half-American love child of Giacomo Puccini’s famed character, Madame Butterfly or Cio-Cio to opera fans.
The tragic love story of the fickle American naval officer and the gorgeous geisha who pines for him enthralled audiences almost from its first production in 1904 Italy. Today, it is the eighth most performed opera in the world, and Davis-Gardner admits her inspiration for the novel came after a performance when a friend wondered aloud what happened next to Butterfly’s child, last seen on stage staring in shock at his mother’s lifeless body.
The opera’s origins can be traced to various fictional accounts, yet John Luther Long, the author of a 1898 short story of the same name, claimed his fiction was based on facts retold by his sister, a missionary in 19th-century Nagasaki. Davis-Gardner also bases her novel firmly in reality, leaving divas and dramatics to the stage.
Although the first pages of Davis-Gardner’s work do contain a synopsis of the opera, she quickly sets a grounded tone with her opening chapter, “Overtures”: “He will come because he must come. The packets of money are not enough; there are still large debts at the geisha house to be paid, as her geisha mother has lately reminded her. If she is forced to return to the geisha way, Benji will be taken from her and will be an orphan wandering the streets of the pleasure districts …”
Davis-Gardner thus authentically portrays both historical Japan and America. The streets of Nagasaki’s international pleasure district bloom with her quiet details, from the stone fox at the shrine placated with tofu to the backstreets of bustling Maruyama. Equally detailed is the small farming community in Illinois where Frank Pinkerton takes his love child, Benji, after Cio-Cio’s suicide, a drama the reader never actually witnesses on the page. The chipped blue plates and chicken and rooster salt and pepper shakers stand alongside a typical farm breakfast of scrambled eggs and corn mush, and we are suddenly, completely in rural America at the turn of the century.
This authenticity comes from careful research. Although Davis-Gardner spent one year in Tokyo teaching at Tsuda College, she added to her base knowledge and appreciation of Japan with extensive research in Nagasaki and in the 19th- century American Midwest. Her added investigations of the opera itself and her clever mingling of pseudo-reality with fiction as her character Pinkerton realizes “someone has stolen his life” by creating an opera based loosely on his past, neatly questions in literary aside the reality of fiction and the creative power of art itself.
The novel’s most wrenching authenticity, however, comes from Davis-Gardner’s subtle development of the characters themselves.
Pinkerton’s wife, Kate, accepts Benji with quiet trepidation, fighting her own shock at the “vulgar liaison,” trying to believe “God was calling on her to enlarge her soul.” Benji, convinced at first that he has entered the mystical world of the kappas (Japanese water sprites) in this unfamiliar land, gradually adapts, his struggles related in restrained, matter-of-fact detail.
Pinkerton grapples with guilt and memories as his good intentions wrestle with his insensitive shortcomings down a path paved with further grief.
Each character is carefully etched with minimized drama, their fortitude and frailty in the face of the many lingering aftershocks of great tragedy unfolding as a compellingly complete human drama. Their choices seemed inevitable, but days later I found myself reassessing decisions and missed chances, marveling at how myth and grand gestures create muffled catastrophe for the survivors.
Even opera fans, accustomed to the majestic buildup, will appreciate Davis-Gardner’s controlled mastery of bathos, a descent into the everyday that ultimately resonates with more beauty than resplendent dramatics.
With both the unexpected and the assured, “Butterfly’s Child” flits persistently in memory, long after the last page.”